True West may have been part of California’s psychedelic underground, but the Davis quintet definitely had a sound and style all its own. Drawing inspiration from Syd Barrett (the band’s first release was a single of his “Lucifer Sam,” reprised on the EP) and Roky Erickson, they played a frenetic, dense drone with crazed guitars and dramatic vocals.
Co-produced by guitarist Russ Tolman and Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, True West is a rough, marvelous record — five slices of chaos that kick out nostalgia in favor of powerful rock with a dark, threatening ambience. Echo-laden sound gives tunes like “Hollywood Holiday” and “Steps to the Door” an unsettling noise/chaos level that considerably heightens their tension. Hollywood Holiday contains the entire EP plus three more-sophisticated tracks subsequently recorded with a new rhythm section. (New Rose later included Hollywood Holiday on its CD of Drifters.)
Drummer Jozef Becker left to rejoin Thin White Rope; True West recorded the Drifters album with his not-so-good replacement. The nine new songs (reprising “And Then the Rain” from the French LP) showcase Gavin Blair’s vocals as much as Tolman’s inventive, original guitar work. A strikingly good record that escapes the strictures of neo-psychedelia by incorporating folk-rock ambience, Drifters retains just enough raw-edged aggression to keep things from getting unacceptably melodious. “Look Around” is the clear standout, but other numbers — “Shot You Down” and “Hold On,” for instance — also marry engaging sound and arrangements to solid songwriting.
After losing Tolman (and with him their edge), True West pressed on as a quartet. Despite compensatory efforts — the countryish Hand of Fate receives valuable guitar assistance from Matt Piucci (Rain Parade) and Chuck Prophet (Green on Red) — Tolman’s departure had a major negative impact on True West. The record is by no means bad, just colorless. A careful, nostalgic cover of the Yardbirds’ “Happenings Ten Years’ Time Ago” lacks the energy surge needed to justify the effort.
True West broke up in 1987; West Side Story is a posthumous patchwork of previously unreleased studio efforts and medium-fi live performances, including fiery run-throughs of “Hollywood Holiday” and the Stooges’ “1969.” While there are a few finds (“Free Men Own Guns”) among the outtakes, the generally disappointing material and inadequate sound quality make this a meager career appendix.
On the other hand, the 1983 demos (produced, with clear stylistic impact, by Tom Verlaine) that are on the Best Western CD are among the band’s most striking work: an intense, lead-guitar-spiked pre-Drifters version of “Look Around,” a clearer second rendition of Hollywood Holiday‘s “Throw Away the Key” (with Becker turning in drastically improved drumming) and a fine studio take of West Side Story‘s “Burn the Roses.” The vinyl-only TV Western (any puns left?) pairs some of those tracks with an exciting trio of live items from 1985.
Singer Gavin Blair and guitarist Richard McGrath remained together after True West and became Fool Killers. Out of State Plates adds a country undercurrent, a Stonesy side and occasional acoustic instrumentation to the remnants of True West’s measured drama, but winds up slow-moving and dull, with only a handful of lively tunes to brighten the ride.
The shoddy self-production on Tolman’s eccentric solo debut covers up any of the guitarist’s potential vocal inadequacies in a blur of flat, boomy sound; there’s enough echo on the rhythm section to fill the Grand Canyon. (Maybe that’s where this was recorded.) Fortunately, Tolman’s spirit and songwriting aptitude are strong even if the audio is weak — cheap bootleg ambience only adds to the outlaw fun.
On Down in Earthquake Town, Tolman takes the opposite extreme: such production frills as horns, girl-group singers, accordion and mandolin give the songs buoyancy and lightness. Tolman’s voice is thin and twangy, like a Fender Telecaster. With songs about “Vegas,” “Palm Tree Land” and other scenes from the West Coast underbelly, Earthquake Town has a kind of slouchy sleaziness, songs of slot machines and crumbling relationships.
Goodbye Joe falls somewhere between its predecessors, more polished than Totem Poles but packing more of a rock wallop than Earthquake Town. Tolman finally seems to have settled into a solo persona — a slightly nostalgic, world-weary Everyguy who’s willing to let dreams and reminiscences serve as his adventures. The imagery of bends in the road and rainbows mined for pots of gold may not be new, but Tolman gives them resonance and authenticity.